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Madagascar Protesters Demand Mayor be Declared President - 2002-02-04

More than half a million protesters took to the streets of the capital of Madagascar Monday, to demand that the city's mayor be declared president. The protest marked the start of a second week of a general strike that has basically shut the city down.

The mood in downtown Antananarivo was more like a festival than a massive political protest. Music blared from loudspeakers. Street vendors sold sandwiches and vegetables to the hungry demonstrators.

For six hours, a seemingly never-ending column of people paraded down the street, holding banners in support of opposition presidential candidate Marc Ravalomanana. He is the mayor of Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, and he believes he should be president. He claims the election held in December was rigged to deny him an outright victory.

According to the official results, the mayor took 46 percent of the votes, and current President Didier Ratsiraka came in second with 40 percent.

The high court has ruled that nobody can be declared the winner since neither candidate got more than 50 percent of the vote. A second round of elections is scheduled for later this month.

But Mr. Ravalomanana claims he actually won 52 percent. He says he will only agree to a second round of voting if the government allows a team of international observers to verify the results of the first round.

Until then, he has called for a general strike that for the last week has literally shut down the capital city, Antananarivo, which is commonly called Tana.

On Monday, more than half a million of his supporters turned out for another massive protest.

Early in the day, it was blisteringly hot and the sun beat down on the crowd unmercifully. But the people sang and danced on, oblivious to the heat. Even a sudden downpour just before Mr. Ravalomanana was due to speak did not dampen their spirits.

"Nothing will prevent my being president, or claiming the truth, neither sun nor rain," he said.

But Mr. Ravalomanana has changed his strategy. He has called off the protest for Tuesday, and urges his supporters to just stay home from work instead.

"Starting Tuesday we will be stronger," he said. "Tana will be a dead city."

The protest on Monday drew a massive crowd that included delegations from local businesses, schools and even government ministries.

One student, Robison Randrianbaloarisoa, 23, says he has been out demonstrating every day in support of the man he wants declared president.

"I have come here for the truth," he said. "I have to protect my voting rights because I think the government did something wrong in the counting of ballots."

Other protesters expressed similar sentiments. They think it is time for a change.

Madagascar is one of the poorest nations on earth, despite having rich natural resources. Jean-Henri Rakoto, 76, blames President Ratsiraka for the failure of the country's economy.

"At first, Mr. Ratsiraka gave the people hope that Madagascar would be a paradise of socialism, but he only made the country poor," he said.

Mr. Ravalomanana is one of Madagascar's economic success stories. He started his career selling yogurt on the street and turned it into a thriving business, eventually amassing a small fortune.

Mr. Rakoto hopes he will use his business sense to turn things around for Madagascar, as he has done for the capital city since becoming mayor in 1999.

"Mr. Ravalomanana has done a lot of things here in Tana," he said. "He started up his own company and manages it very well. And he was also the mayor here, and he did a lot of things for the city of Tana."

Most of the protesters expressed their willingness to come back for another demonstration on Tuesday. But they will have to wait until at least Wednesday. The general strike, however, continues until the government meets Mr. Ravalomanana's demands.

A delegation of European government officials is expected to arrive in Antananarivo later this week, but it is not yet clear whether they will be allowed to examine the results of the first round of voting.